The swamp-thing progeny of “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “The Night of the Hunter” (with a little “Cape Fear” thrown in), “My Father Die” offers blood-and-thunder Southern-gothic excess both tempered and heightened by vivid directorial texturing. Writer-helmer Sean Brosnan’s debut feature after several shorts isn’t exactly a horror film, but this thematically simple, aesthetically complex revenge tale will find strongest initial support among fans at genre fests, with word of mouth there possibly spurring niche theatrical pickups as well as more assured home-format sales.
A black-and-white opening sequence finds the dirt-poor Rawlings brothers running wild in Louisiana bayou country, where the teenage Chester (Chester Rushing) promises to initiate the pubescent Asher in the mysteries of sex via willing young neighbor Nana (Trina LaFargue). Unfortunately, their dad, Ivan (former British pro boxer Gary Stretch), considers her his own property — never mind that he’s still married to the boys’ mother — and when he discovers her messing around, no parental instincts soften his furious response. The resulting violence leaves one son dead, the other permanently deaf and mute.
Thus silenced, a decade later Asher (now played by Joe Anderson) is living with his slatternly, bedridden mother (Susan McPhail) when they get some very bad news: Daddy has been released four years early due to prison overcrowding. Junior immediately starts doing push-ups, sawing off a shotgun and otherwise preparing for battle. He’s not overreacting, either: Ivan is only at liberty a few hours before he bludgeons to death a plainclothes cop (John Schneider) who gets too chummy. Figuring to strike before he’s struck down, Asher manages to locate his father and take him by surprise. However, it’s a catastrophic mistake, after this successful attack, to then leave without making absolutely sure that Pops is dead.
There’s nothing terribly original or surprising about the bare bones of Brosnan’s script, in which the white-trash father from hell (duly evoking Robert Mitchum’s iconic turns in “Hunter” and “Cape”) mows down everything in his path before the purest forces of good around can finally vanquish his near-supernatural evil. But Brosnan, who studied poetry before launching a medium-profile acting career (he plays a small part here), brings a poet’s flamboyance and unpredictable rhythms to this seemingly trashy material. Not that he doesn’t embrace its more lurid aspects — indeed, particularly nasty sequences involving homophobia and rape may cross a line for some viewers. But “My Father Die’s” adventuresome mix of aesthetic and tonal approaches brings coherence to its leaps from tenderness to bloodbaths, from black humor to a kind of hallucinatory religious fervor.
Not all of it works, but this is a bold and talented debut, all the more impressive for transcending (while embracing) some shameless exploitation tropes. Performances are well tuned, with much of the pic’s effectiveness owing to the genuine warmth in scenes between Anderson, Candace Smith’s grown-up Nana and Jonathan Billions as her playful young son. Other turns range from the poker-faced to the zestily stereotypical. The impressive tech/design package is highlighted by Marc Shap’s vivid widescreen lensing and a flavorful roots-rock score by Justin Small and Ohad Benchetrit.